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The Lean, Mean Zine Scene

Zinefest 2004 is about as D.I.Y. as you can get. It's so alternative, the organizers don't even count how many people show up.

The zine is the literary arm of D.I.Y. culture. Zines can be works of art, elaborately presented with limited-edition, silk-screened and hand-embroidered covers, or they might be little rants about the opera-singing neighbor downstairs, all Xeroxed into chapbooks during a three-a.m. visit to Kinko's.

Obsession fuels the zine, and whether it is with pet rocks or one's own life, the thing about an obsession is that someone out there probably shares it. "You might write about something no one in your town cares about, but once you create this zine you can connect with someone else," says Zinefest cofounder Gordon Edgar. "And once you start writing to each other you become a sort of community, even thought you never meet each other in person."

Ah, but you can meet in person, thanks to the third annual San Francisco Zinefest that takes place this weekend in the Mission District. (If you're scratching your head at this point, let's take a step back. "Zines" rhymes with "greens," not "wines," and they're homemade magazines, often photocopied, hand-stapled, and paid for with the last bits of one's pocket change.)

An essential part of the DIY culture of zines is the intense pride in the trade and in its bare-bones budgets. The Bay Area has several stores that stock zines (try Modern Times, Needles and Pens, and City Lights, or call your local shop and ask), but the need for a cheap confab among zinesters helped launched Zinefest back in 2002. Before that, the Alternative Press Expo was the main local trade show for independent publishers, including zine makers, but comics began to edge out zines and APE's commercial success made it more expensive to attend. Small operators felt they needed a new venue. (The February 2004 APE show sold 250 tables to presenters and attracted 3,800 visitors in three days.)

While chatting on an online bulletin board dedicated to zines, Edgar and Jenn Star, a zine distributor, figured there was space in San Francisco to host both the APE and the Zinefest. In DIY fashion, they put out the call online and asked for help.

It worked. The first year, the main area of San Francisco community art center CELLspace was packed with tables spilling over with all kinds of zines, buttons, T-shirts and other paraphernalia. It was like a trade show where the only thing in common was that everyone was hawking their most personal obsessions. There were zines on composting and on things to do with menstrual blood; there were comic-illustrated zines and some that were pure lit.

That first one in 2002 was a one-day event but expanded to two days with side events in 2003. Co-organizer Star doesn't expect much growth between '03 and this year because of the finite amount of space. This year about 65 people will be there to hawk their zines. The cost is minimal: $30 tops. As for attendees, the show is free and, besides, Star says, "we aren't really counting" who walks through the door.

Because it's so diverse and eclectic, the festival serves as another Bay Area literary resource. One librarian at the 2002 Zinefest was looking for zines written by teenagers to add to the young adult section of her library.

The gathering also offers a chance for writers with similar obsessions to connect with one another. Trent Tano, who attended in 2003, publishes Strange Tales, a zine filled with stories about space cowboys and private investigators. "You make friends really quick 'cause all you do is sit and hope someone comes to your table," says Tano. "Most writers are very insular and would rather not talk to people as a rule, but having to pitch your zine makes you get over your phobia pretty quick."

This year's festival has grown to include more workshops than last year with topics that include distribution, self-promotion, event planning and zine collections. There will also be two outside events: a reading tonight at Femina Potens Gallery and a Saturday evening screening of $100 and a T-Shirt, a video documentary about zines in the Northwest.